Sunday, August 28, 2011

Arouse Interest in Domestic Cricket, Airtel!

Today, one of Indian domestic cricket's biggest problem is that it isn't attracting enough attention or viewership or interest of the general public. The fandom is limited, and almost all of them would be "die hard" fans, branches of families who have had big interests in their local team, passing on the passion from generation to generation. In India, the best such association of fans to their domestic team can only be seen in Mumbai, and traces in maybe TN, Delhi, Bengal, UP etc. My dad tells tales about the Gopalan Trophy...such was the following of the local team in those days.

Nowadays, people don't know much about their local stars until they make an appearance on television in coloured clothings. The NEO network's two channels have helped televise some domestic games. The Challenger Trophy brings the best few in the country in a round robin league, which is probably the most viewed domestic tournament in India. Yet, Ranji trophy, or even Duleep trophy doesn't attract half as much attention of viewers or followers alike.

There has to be ways to get over this. There is.

Yesterday, while watching the channel 'NEO Cricket', I learnt that Airtel sponsors all domestic cricket leagues and tournaments in India.

Airtel is one of the leading telephone, cellular, broadband and DTH television service provider in India, with nation-wide coverage in all aspects.

I believe that this link between Airtel and the domestic cricket can help bring the cricket closer to people. Airtel can be the mediator to bring the happenings to the people.

Airtel services include packages for cricket, wherein the subscribers would get score updates and news from international games and events. Such services can be extended to the domestic set-up too.

Airtel can allow its customers to subscribe to packages for any Ranji team (extend to Vijay Hazare and Syed Mushtaq Ali trophies). The subscribers would then be given information at toss (toss, teams) and score updates at lunch, tea and stumps for all days of play. And at stumps on each day, update all subscribers with scores from all the games being played across the country.

All subscribers can be allowed to follow other non-state-specific tournaments without hassles, meaning, without any further subscription procedures. This would involve coverage of Deodar, Duleep and Irani trophy.

The cricket package for international games was priced at Rs 30 for 30 days. Airtel would know best on how to price the packages for the domestic games. Ranji season would see atleast 4 games every month for each team. There will be one-dayers and T20s too.

Marketing this is simple too. As of now, the BCCI is able to promote its domestic leagues only on its channels - NEO Sports and NEO Cricket (both paid channels, require set-top-box or DTH). With Airtel involved, there are no boundaries. Advertisements on all local channels can catch the attention of target audience better. Print media in each region can advertise for subscription of their local team's cricket update service pack.

This has multiple benefits :-
1. More people can now follow their local cricket team in the domestic league. One large step in creating a larger fandom for the domestic teams.
2. Airtel will have more revenue, might also generate more customers if the venture is a success.

A win-win situation? Yes!

I want to see that day when a Yorkshire fan would be jealous of the fandom of Jharkhand.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Autopsy of India's loss to England.

India traveled to England from West Indies with a crop of new cricketers, seasoned travelers, some passengers and a large kit full of bandages, relief sprays, magic sprays etc. The series started with a Panther coming out to play for Somerset, who ended up lifting the trophy after whitewashing the opponents whiter than the kit he was wearing.

This may be one of India's worst defeats in history. But India fought for 17 days of the series, and lost only 4-0. Spare a thought for Natasha Zvereva, who was crushed 6-0 6-0 by Steffi Graf in 1988 French Open. Lasted only 32 minutes, shorter than India's 7 man tail lasted in the last test.

I look at some major reasons why India lost the series to England.

1. That Blimp
Right from the start of the series, the television presenters were hell bent on giving more importance to the floating piece of clueless hot air balloon than what was happening down in the cricket ground. The cricketers had to do something crazy enough to attract the attention of the 7 month old baby which would otherwise have been gazing at the blimp.

It is also believed that Lalit Modi lived in that blimp, preparing to unfurl his IPL-IS-GOD nuisance as soon as India would win a test. The needless and pointless ZanduBalm Pressure became a huge Vicks 500 Headache for the Indian team, and like all humans they suffered from fatigue from the over expectation generated from the man in the MRF Blimp.

That blimp...

2. Snapping Samson's Hair

Never change something that is going well.

Ishant Sharma was the leading wicket taker in the WI series. He had the most wickets for an Indian in a single tour of WI. And within a couple of weeks of landing in England, he becomes a cropper. His hair was cut. Along with the length of his hair, went his powers. Ishant, is Samson.

Ishant's form dipped, injured himself, and is now back home.

3. The Rise of the Barbie

Before the series started, Stuar Broad was a man going nowhere with his form. He was spraying the ball all around for an year. His enforcing abilities had diminished to near nothingness. It took him three and a half ODIs to pick his first wicket of the series against SL, preceding the IND series. Such was his plight, fighting against Bresnan for a spot in the playing XI.

And on 21st July, as England started their campaign at Lord's, a sad thing happened in California, USA later that day. Elliot Handler, the co-inventor of Barbie Dolls, passed away due to heart failure at the age of 95.

The spirit of Barbie seems to have returned to the sole owner of the name - Stuart Broad.

We all saw what happened next - a few match turning innings with the bat, a series of destruction of the batting line up with the ball and with commanding assurance, owned the Man of the Series Award.

(Elliot Handler, RIP. This world got a lot from you. Barbie and HotWheels to name two.)

4. Denying the Battle

When Andrew Strauss opted to play for Somerset on loan to improve his batting (not sure how much he did...), Marcus Trescothik made way for Strauss for the one-off practice game vs India. This meant there was no Trescothik vs Harbhajan face-off. One of the most fun-filled pocket of rivalry was denied bluntly.

I'm pretty sure that Bhajji would've nailed Tresco atleast once. And then he would have that spring in his step. And he would spring on that board for the whole tour.

Well done, Tresco! You've eliminated one bowler off the Indian ranks right off.

5. The Lucky Fellow

And yes, Tim Bresnan played for England. There. How can a team win against England when they field Tim Bresnan in the XI?

And such was the luck and plight of the series, that nothing would put India back on track in the series. India ended up losing 4-0, a whitewash that painted the Indian team whiter than England's whitest white Adidas test kits.

Congratulations to England, the new no.1 in test rankings. Strauss does like the mace. Good luck with it! It seemed like he used it on the Indians to reduce them to rubble.

And as I type, India slip to no.3 in ODIs too, to go along with the no.3 in tests, courtesy SL's victory in the last ODI vs Australia.

Why so serious?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Make Test Cricket a Tradition To Sustain It.

Test cricket, the best form of cricket, needs a serious revival in India, with regards to spectators in a venue.

Test cricket in recent times has seen a big drop in ground attendance across many venues in India. One of the best prepared pitches and outfield in Mohali would be presided over by a crowd which you can count on your fingers. Cricket in VCA/Jamtha in Nagpur was attended by a mere 2000 spectators last year (vs NZ, November), and another 3000 students were filled in just to make the stadium look a bit more filled. Didn't help much. Deccan/Hyderabad saw a poor turn out too.

There are two major reasons for poor turn outs :-

1. People not as interested in attending test cricket than they would attend ODIs.

2. Stadium too far away from the city.

As for reason no.2, one can't help it. And some of those cities having a stadium in the outskirts have a stadium inside the city limits too.

Price of tickets is never a reason. I attended a test match in Nagpur which costs Rs 200 for the whole test match (all 5 days), i.e. Rs 40 a day. That's less than a dollar. I spent more on my headphones.

It all points to one little fact, that there are more purists in some pockets of the country, where people are wanting to attend any day and every day of a game of test cricket. Also, they are willing to pay a higher amount of entry fee to enter into the city (big city economy and all that).

Any cricket board has atleast one eye on the money. And I'm talking about cricket in India, meaning, atleast 2 eyes. One-Dayers and T20s generate huge turn out, even if the stadium is in outskirts of a village in the middle of nowhere. People are willing to shell out money for a one-time shorter format outing.

Take Dharmasala for example, which had a good turn out during the IPL. And I remember Nagpur being house-full for a T20 international game. My friend told me he couldn't buy a ticket for a Hyderabad ODI game at 9pm on the day the ticket sales opened, as all tickets were sold out within 12 hours. ODIs in Cuttack, Rajkot, Gwalior etc are always jam packed. The last time I saw a good crowd at a first class game in India was the Ranji Trophy final between Karnataka and Mumbai at Mysore. People climbed on trees to watch the watch the precious last session on play.

So, we need to keep the interest of the people and generate money out of it. In a balanced manner. The solution is quite clear -

1. Host the test cricket in the prominent "traditional" test venues, thereby getting rid of rotational policies, where attendance is guaranteed.

They would include - Chennai, Mumbai (Wankhede), Bangalore, Kolkata, New Delhi, Kanpur, and maybe Ahmedabad (Motera). I hope and pray there are a couple more to add? Hyderabad hasn't been a sweet spot for test cricket. And Mohali, howsoever good the ground and stadium is, never generated the attendance.

2. Create, or revisit a tradition in scheduling the tests at particular venues. I learnt that the last "Pongal test" in Chennai (Madras) was more than 2 decades ago, and that was the "Hirwani test". Assuming we play cricket from July/August to march/April, there are enough openings for Diwali, New Year, Sankranti/Pongal, Holi etc. Schedule 2 series across 4 or 5 months, starting with a test series, then both ODI series (or tri-series?) and then finishing with the other test series. That can cover the dates above mentioned which are spaced well apart.

I read that some CLT20 games were shifted out of Kolkata, as advised by local police, because of Durga Puja. In that case, I'm sure a test either just before or just after the festivity will be lively. It will be like, "to set the tone" or "to finish the festivities".

3. Schedule ODIs and T20s in other stadia in the country, implement rotational policy, weather compatibility and all that. Crowds guaranteed. Money guaranteed. Allot a fixed amount to the stadium that hosted the LOI games, and put the rest of the income in a common pool. Use the money in the pool to cover excess expenditure at the test venues to improve the ground, pitch, infrastructure (not all stadiums have a good wi-fi connectivity at press-box, for example) etc.

4. Nothing wrong in increasing the price of tickets a bit at the test venues. People will be willing to pay Rs 500 for five days' entry to the stands for sure. It is not a guess, it is what the people have been cheerfully paying for the love of the game, of test cricket.

Such formats are followed in Australia and England. Australia have had this for long enough to use this as a strategy, to weaken the opponents chip by chip.

5. Better scheduling of a test by days of week. A test in India's WI tour started on Monday. That will in no way attract crowd to a game. A test match should ideally start on a Thursday or Friday, woo people to the ground and make them come back for all days. People have enough love for the game in their heart to attend the last day of a game on a Monday or Tuesday. I've seen it.

Indian cricket fans are very sentimental, and it will be a risk to now hold tests in less prominent grounds now, when Indian team has just lost the mantle of no.1 test cricket team in the world. Luckily, India host West Indies in New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai.

Cliché or not, uphold the spirit of test cricket.

(built on inputs from Venkat Ananth, Dileep Premachandran and others)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Swiss Knife of Indian Cricket

"Silently going about, doing his business."

- A gazillion people, on Rahul Dravid.

Fifteen years ago at Lord's, in walked a skinny top order batsman, who was in the team for another batsman missing out on the test... And on his debut, teased the English bowlers with cream and venom alike, and made a respectable 95 runs. Not putting his name on the honour's board didn't hurt as much as not going on forever did.

Introducing Rahul Sharad Dravid. The man who planted the trees on the top order to hold the loose soil tight. The man who took the scoring brunt off the shoulders of Azhar and Sachin, sharing loads with the colleague Sourav and his dearest buddy, VVS...thereby starting a new era of Indian batting order. One that would last for a decade, stripping opposition of pride and fame, creating pride and fame for their own team, and continually raising standards to reach the pinnacle they just did.

Came in as a top order stabilizer, became a top order mobilizer with continuous commendable performances in ODIs. Instantly, he had a fan club (not the easiest thing to do when you have Sachin polarizing the nation, and Sourav rising up too), and had tons of girls drooling over him. Then there was Jam Jam Jammie.

Nothing deterred his concentration. We've seen Waughs and Sachins and Laras. But none of them have the concentration level of Rahul Dravid. With no imposition to go for the high-flying shots that define the younger generation, Dravid trusted his 6th, 7th and 8th sense - concentration. Armed with the defense of highest quality, he ground the bowlers, brought them to his mercy and then punished them with his artillery of stroke-play.

Want an example to prove his concentration?

That, in an age where NZ would have the most hostile pitches for subcontinental batsmen, ball zipping around and all that. That total spoke volumes of his talent.
A dozen years later, he has 5 double tons for India, only bettered by Sachin and the only Indian with triple ton (two of them) - Sehwag. No other contemporary or past batsmen have as many. And his double tons came at the Oval, Pindi, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Adelaide. But for Ahmedabad, every other test had an ordeal to surpass.

The sweetest of them all? Adelaide. That innings was one that laid India on the path to overseas success. An innings that instilled fear in opponents' spine, even if at home. A feel of "nothing is over until it is over" and other cliched lines.

Not to forget that 190 and a 191 at Nagpur vs NZ. If Dravid sets his eye in, he will not let go of the grip.

And no, he is not a test-only batsman. He has been a prolific limited over batsman. More than 10000 runs, having been asked to bat at multiple positions in the batting line up, tossed around like a volleyball. One thing that did not change was the consistency in delivery.

People don't generally associate Dravid with speed. But, one cannot forget his whirlwind fifty against NZ, that till date stands to be the 2nd fastest Indian fifty in ODI, albeit shared by a few others (Sehwag, Yuvraj, Kapil Dev). Dravid was pushed down the order so faster scorers can accelerate. But it was Dravid who actually did the acceleration that night. Cover drives were given a harder push, a little more lift. As simple as that, came the sixes.

We remember Sachin's 186 and Ganguly's 183 as examples of Indian ODI's greatest innings. But at the other end of those innings, was Rahul Dravid. He had 153 and 145, better than run-a-ball, and is the sole cricketer features in two triple century partnerships. Not Sachin, not Ganguly. Dravid.

Greg Chappell came in, tossed the team around like a Chinese tossing vegetables on a pan. Dravid, slotted to play at no.3 or 4 would have to make space for Irfan Pathan or Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the floaters. Chappell displaces Ganguly from the scene and thrusts the captaincy onto Rahul Dravid. Dravid has since managed the team to overseas success, even though he wasn't enjoying captaincy.

When Mongia's jaws were rearranged by Jumbo, fellow Bangalorean, Rahul Dravid stepped up and took the gloves. Saba Karim's offer to fly in as India's cover-up was put on hold, as Dravid was made to take up this additional job for the rest of the tournament, a world cup tournament that.

His 145 vs Sri Lanka at Taunton was then the 2nd highest score by a wicket-keeper batsman, the highest in that category a world cup. Only Gilchrist's 2007 final has bettered that in a world cup.

He was made to continue as the keeper for 70 odd games, to accommodate another batsman in the line up. He had to squat 50 times in the subcontinent, and then come on to balance the top order.

He had to take the brunt of captaincy during a torrid time in Indian cricket.

When the team was without openers, Dravid was pushed to open the innings. It was not his favourite spot, but he took the shot for the team.

Why, you put up posters and placards with his face sitting besides the name he doesn’t like, “The Wall”, but continues to live with it.

In an age where people miss every second game for some injury or the other, Rahul went on to play record number of tests in a row until he missed a test. And that record has only been eclipsed by the flawless health of Gilchrist.

He had to give up his ODI place to "young blood" who would go on to earn money by wearing colourful jerseys in petty leagues doing what could only be best described as "dancing to rap music". His WC 2007 memories not helping, he reserved himself to test cricket, though available for the shorter form too. But for Kohli, India hasn't seen a batsman who can be half as close to Dravid's stature, to be able to manage that spot at the top order with as much calmness as he did. Gambhir and Ganguly are not natural no.3, but they were made to fall back to no.3 at times from their natural opening slot, which by default pushed Dravid back.

And today, when the panic button sounds alarms, the team falls back to the game's biggest servant to save them from further blushes in this English tour. Indian ODI may not be moving forward, but it had to return to the man who has helped the team in the exact same situation time and again in history. Once again, something unforeseen strikes Rahul Dravid.

Has anyone, anyone, ever had a cup of coffee with him and asked “Forget our needs, what would you like to have? What do you want to see? Where do you want to play? Are you comfortable? Do you need rest?” Dravid is the precious Kohinoor we couldn’t live without, which shone the room of Indian cricket with grace and brought delight. A man who took the services from the likes of Jadeja and Siddhu and the likes, looking to hand over the keys to Kohli and Pujara and the likes, Indian cricket hasn’t been half as kind as it could’ve been to Rahul.

He smoothened the middle order, he opened the innings on demand, he cut through arrays of records, he sliced open racks of bowling attacks, he screwed and bolted the Indian batting order, he anchored many an ends in his career, and clipped away needless gossips from the team... With a smile.

India’s Swiss Knife. Rahul Sharad Dravid.